2010 FIFA World Cup
"We take great pride in everything we do," says producer Simon Humber. That's understandable, especially when you recall how FIFA 10 plays the best game of virtual football on the market and has sold approximately fifty squillion copies. It's still riding high in the charts now, which makes me question why EA would bother iterating the franchise for their imminent World Cup instalment. Might as well just slap a new logo on it, fire off a few confetti cannons and call it a day, right?
Wrong, at least according to Humber, who says that the development team "are experienced, mad passionate about football [...] and are determined to make the game better and better and better. If you suggested to them 'why don't you take a breather with this one?' there would be total shock horror."
There are a few significant new developments to EA's latest World Cup tie-in. The first is a two-button control scheme, lovingly dubbed the 'Dad Pad' by the development team, which EA hope will give players who wouldn't normally touch a FIFA game the opportunity to pick up and play with minimal fuss. It's all context sensitive, so if you press the 'shoot' button the game will figure out what to do by a combination of its own AI ingenuity and how long you held down the button in the first place.
Of course, the Dad Pad lacks the nuance and finery of the regular controls. You can't just pop out a surprise volley, or gamble with a risky through-pass that just might succeed. It lets you play, but not as well: after a while it'll start to feel like a hindrance, which is about the time you'll switch to the regular control scheme. This also has the side effect of being an ingenious way to get people into game good and proper in time for FIFA 11, the thought of which the bean counters at EA HQ are probably salivating over right now.
Which brings me to a guilty confession: I'm not exactly the world's best FIFA player. I'm barely competent, usually more than happy to lose a few games before shrugging it off and declaring rugby a better sport anyway. It is. I'll get involved in the World Cup, though. Because you've got to, haven't you? Some hulky bruiser would probably throw a pot of sauce sachets over you next time you're down the local Wetherspoons if it looked like you didn't care.
I decided, then, to play a few games with the Dad Pad. I still lost, of course, but it helped me up my game in the short-term and made my opponent work a little bit harder for his victory. When segueing back to the regular controls a couple of hours later I even found that I felt more comfortable on the pitch and, surprisingly, more familiar with the game engine. If the Dad's don't get on with it, I imagine EA could successfully rebrand it as a set of FIFA training wheels.
When you go for a bit of a World Cup kick about you'll notice it feels like a faster game of football than FIFA 10, though Humber points out that players have the exact same levels of speed and acceleration that they did before. The newfound burst of speed comes from tweaked animation frames and fancier abilities - they can now chest the ball whilst moving, for instance. It's all a big, concentrated attempt to remove the 'stickiness' of the players in certain situations.
EA certainly seem confident in their product. "We've pushed gameplay along a lot further than it was in FIFA 10," says Humber, "the feedback I'm getting today is that people can see that it's a lot better."
By far the biggest change on a game-by-game basis comes from the revamped penalty system. The old and busted rock/paper/scissors mechanic has taken a backseat to make way for a new system that gets harder depending on how important it is that you score the goal. It sounds fancy, but it's achieved primarily by the addition of a wiggly oscillating needle.
Once you've got it as bang-on in the middle as you can, it's a case of holding the button down to determined the strength of the shot. Direction is controlled by holding the analog stick in one direction, with the game's penalty training mode also popping up an on-screen indicator to help players learn the new system. Variable difficulty aside, everyone I played with on the day found it tricky to get to grips with the system, with shots either flying far too wide or landing safely in the hands of the goalkeeper.
That's a likely case of squiffy sensitivity, perhaps, and it's entirely likely the knobs and dials will be fiddled with in time for the game's release. What definitely does work, however, is a new control system for the goalkeeper which forces the defending player to gamble an earlier dive to reach the extremities of the net. Forsake the leap of faith and you stand a better chance of reading the ball's movement but you - barring a lucky reaction save - might not be able to adequately defend against a well-placed shot.
The meat of the affair is, of course, the World Cup mode. All 199 teams make an appearance - on a shiny and fully-rotatable 3D map, which will probably do a better job teaching geography to kids than a hundred school teachers - and you can guide any one of them through a user-selectable mix of friendlies, qualifiers and the tournament itself. Humber tells us how he looks at "our own EA forums very often, and other football gaming forums, and one thing I've noticed is just how excited people are that their own obscure football nation is in the game."
Dedicated fans can even watch a live draw, and even though the mode looks about as thrilling as watching the national lottery when you haven't purchased a ticket it's nice to see EA pulling out all the stops. Match reports, too, are even styled around FIFA.com itself, which lends a tasteful air of faux authenticity to your eerily-authentic imitation tournaments.
Claim ultimate victory and you even get a painstakingly recreated ceremony to lift the coveted 13lb trophy high in the air and contemplate all the lucrative merchandising deals you'll now be signing. This works best in the returning Captain Your Country mode, which allows up to four offline players to compete and collaborate in a bid to lead your team from the frontlines. Spend a few hours (or days) working in this mode and the sight of your player lifting the trophy over that of your friends' promises to be a thoroughly satisfying sight.
Alongside the main World Cup event itself, EA are also offering up a selection of 50+ scenarios for players to re-enact. Yes, that moment from the Ireland v France is included. On top of allowing all the Guinness drinkers of the world to get even, the developers will also be offering up additional scenarios from the previous nights' games during the tournament itself, allowing users from defeated nations a brief glimpse at how things could have been.
No modern FIFA would be complete without the usual glut of fancy stats and rankings, either, including the newer, fancier Battle of the Nations online mode which tracks wins by players of each country and maps them on a board to prove, definitively, which country is the best. England probably won't win here, either.
The usual grab bag of visual improvements is also along for the ride. To show us a direct comparison, Humber pops up a menage a trois of Ashley Cole. On the left of the screen is Ashley Cole from FIFA 10, who looks mottled and dull when compared to the bright, shiny forehead of Ashley Cole in 2010 FIFA World Cup beaming out on the right. In the middle is an actual photo of Ashley Cole, who is probably thinking about cheating on lovely Cheryl - how could he?
EA won't be worrying too much about whether or not 2010 FIFA World Cup will be a success. That much is obvious. But with a whole bevy of returning modes, clever tweaks and the new Dad Pad allowing virtually everyone to get on the pitch, the game is looking like a promising addition to the EA's ever-expanding trophy cabinet.
Thanks to Simon Humber for talking to us. FIFA World Cup 2010 is released for 360, PS3, Wii and PSP on 30th April.